Archive for September, 2011

So… what did I think of The Girl Who Waited?

Posted on September 11th, 2011 in Culture | 1 Comment »

I always rather liked The Rise of The Cybermen / The Age of Steel. Not a perfect two-parter by any means, but with a lot of very good stuff in it, so as opposed to the unease with which I greeted a fourth script from Mark Gatiss last week (sort-of), I was looking forward to a return effort from Tom MacRae.

The early parts of the episode are strong. Some cheerful banter between the regulars (still no mention of their family tragedy this week, but hey-ho) and then a very nice arrival into a Mind Robber-esque void which contrives to separate Mr and Mrs Pond. Time streams running at different rates is not a wholly new science fiction idea. Mr Moffat has played with it more than once (notably in The Girl in the Fireplace) and I think but can’t be bothered to check that it also comes up in Red Dwarf and Star Trek The Next Generation. Hell, it’s in The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe.

The exact mechanism is a little hard to follow if I’m honest. If this disease kills you in a day, is time sped up for you or slowed down for you? In either case, why aren’t you hungry? How does Amy know she’s been there for a week? Just how does that spy-glass work anyway? Oh it doesn’t really matter – it’s such a nice science-fairy-fiction-story touch isn’t it?

In fact, from the moment that Rory confronts 50-plus-year-old Amy, none of this matters. Two weeks ago I compared the glib treatment of Amy’s baby to the reality of Rose’s disappearance. This episode is the good bits of Aliens of London all over again, with so much depth and thought and care it’s almost unbelievable. Having someone turn back up to “rescue” you after you’ve been fending for yourself, with no human company, for 36 years is a preposterous idea. But Tom McRae, director Nick Hurran, some spiffy make-up and blessed, saintly, astonishing Karen Gillan made me believe every single ridiculous second of it and to care desperately how it turned out.

In a very neat twist, it’s the Doctor who is trapped in the TARDIS, having to pilot Rory by remote control and some familiar-looking spectacles through the arcade game of Kill The Robots and Save The Girl. But the girl turns out to be a hardened, obstreperous, embittered version of sprightly Amy who has become so determined to hang on to life that she won’t lift a finger to prevent the younger version of herself from going through her decades of lonely hell.

When she eventually relents, the deal she strikes is quite extraordinary and again it’s a testament to the care and attention to detail of everybody involved that I was perfectly prepared to believe that the TARDIS might be home to two different versions of Amy Pond, at least temporarily. But the eventual inevitability of the elder Pond’s sacrifice, when it dawns, had the agony of a classic tragedy rather than the listless predictability of a reset button. Helping the power and emotion of this scene is the Doctor’s cold insistence that this is Rory’s decision, and the cut-away when young Amy comes around, expecting to see her elder self there is entirely appropriate – but I do hope the Doctor’s lies will be at least mentioned again next week, and given the way this series picks up and drops ongoing storylines whenever it feels like it, that’s not a given.

Some people have griped that the TARDIS being unable to sustain the paradox of multiple Amys is hardly consistent with earlier episodes such as Mawdryn Unead, The Five Doctors, or even – if you really want – Space and Time, but the reality is that these episodes are also entirely inconsistent with each other, so what really counts is whether this story works, and for my money it really, really does. It reminded me less of Mawdryn than the Doctor’s agonised inability to save Section Leader Shaw and the Brigade Leader as the Inferno project turns the Earth inside out. The only problem I have with multiple Amys is that – as with Let’s Kill Hitler – a series which needs us to believe that there is just one Doctor who is shot to death in Utah is giving us another doppleganger to contend with.

Ultimately though, this was absolutely tremendous stuff – funny, complicated, startling, moving and as a stand-alone episode only bettered this year by The Doctor’s Wife. And I’m beginning to think both of those episodes are better than anything we had last year. If I’m going to have one more tiny gripe (and I think I am) it’s just to mention that yet again, we have an implacable automated system whose benevolent (often medical) intentions turn out to have awful or fatal consequences (nanogenes, clockwork soldiers, Lily Cole) often while chanting catch-phrases in even tones (“Are you my mummy?”, “Who turned out the lights”, “Donna Noble has been saved”, “You will experience a tingling sensation and then death”). It’s not that this is a bad idea. It’s not even that it’s a worse idea than power-mad psychopaths hoping to take over the universe (we can do without a re-run of Logopolis). It’s that anything becomes boring if you repeat it often enough, and it’s especially annoying when it’s meant to be a revelation, like all those seventies stories called something like Here Come The Daleks Again which spend the first 24 minutes of episode building up to the stunning revelation that the bad-guys hiding in the shadows are… the Daleks!!

Maybe we should view all of these Doctor-vs-automated systems stories as more like all of those Troughton base-under-siege stories? So the question ought not to be “have we seen a set-up like this before?” but rather “is this The Moonbase or is this The Ice Warriors?” And it doesn’t hurt The Ice Warriors at all that everything in it has been done before, because here it’s done better. And that’s The Girl Who Waited. Not entirely novel, but breathtakingly well done. Five stars.

So… what did I think of Night Terrors?

Posted on September 11th, 2011 in Culture | No Comments »

Firstly, sorry this review is so late. I’ve been running around the country and the planet and suffering from a cold. Admittedly on September 11, this seems like very little to complain of, but there it is.

Back in 2005 a script from Mark Gatiss (long “a”) seemed like a splendid idea. I’d been following his career since “Quatermass and the Hat” at the Edinburgh Fringe circa 1991 and when buying Virgin’s New Adventures every month had thoroughly enjoyed his efforts including “Nightshade”, featuring the star of a beloved BBC TV science-fiction series plagued by fictional characters come to life. I always enjoyed The League of Gentlemen too and so when the series was revived, he seemed an obvious choice to contribute a story, but The Unquiet Dead was the one which proved to Russell T Davies that if getting the scripts up-to-scratch in time meant doing huge rewrites himself then so be it. Dickens-vs-ghosts-in-Victorian-London seemed to be much more about Russell’s vision of Who than Gatiss’s.

The Idiot’s Lantern, part of David Tennant’s first season, was a lesser effort, with no real sense of jeopardy, despite a pleasingly bonkers performance from national treasure Maureen Lipman and the Sapphire And Steel-esque vision of people with stolen faces. Last year, his script for Victory of the Daleks easily walked away with the wooden spoon in a series which was almost comically uneven and incoherent. It was with a certain amount of caution that I approached Night Terrors therefore.

But, it’s also worth noting that Mark Gatiss is one of the most prolific non-show-runners to have written for the programme so far. Only Moffat has written for every series since the show came back, although Rusty currently holds the record for the most scripts by some margin (credited with 31 episodes as writer or co-writer – Moffat can rack up only 18). When Closing Time goes out, Gareth Roberts will overtake Gatiss with five scripts. Next is Helen Raynor with four scripts over two stories. No-one else can get past three. So, he must have something going for him. Mustn’t he…?

The early part of the episode left me a little cold. The frightened little boy seemed so rote, so much a heavy-handed articulation of Moffat’s vision of Doctor Who as behind-the-sofa TV, and the “house call” a quite unnecessary gag which added nothing. As with The Soggy Pirate Rubbish earlier this year, I’m heavily invested in the series-arc plot and I need something really special to make me forget it. And this hand-me-down London estate, bringing back awful memories of Fear Her (aka The Scribbly Olympics Rubbish) didn’t look like it was going to be enough. Even the Doctor’s relationship with Alex started to bring back not-entirely happy memories of The Lodger’s over-done humour.

But as the episode unfolded, I became more and more invested in George’s plight and more and more keen to know what these creepy dolls were up to. The interior dolls house was wonderfully realised by director Richard Clark and Amy and Rory bounced off each other beautifully. The revelation that Claire, George’s mother, can’t conceive was well-handled and George himself was portrayed with laser-like sincerity by little Jamie Oram.

Finally, it all came together with modern Doctor Who doing what it does best – finding the human heart in a science-fiction idea without compromising either. George and Alex’s reunion is genuinely touching and the Doctor’s intervention manages to balance the twin forces of making this Alex’s story while reminding us that Matt Smith is the star (and what a star!).

So, ultimately this is nothing terribly special, but it is a strong, classy, well-realised slab of business-as-usual Doctor Who in 2011. And that’s a good thing, maybe a precious thing. As Tat Wood points out in volume 6 of the preposterously comprehensive review of Doctor Who stories “About Time”, making bread-and-butter episodes of the programme is what Doctor Who pretty much forgot how to do sometime in the mid-eighties and it proved to be the death of the show, killed by Michael Grade, Coronation Street, and – yes – its own fans.

What issues I do have with this episode are all to do with the unfolding arc story. Not only are we expected simply to suspend our interest in the Doctor’s impending death, the continuing complexity of River Song’s life history and the machinations of the evil Madame Eyepatch, but we are obliged to forget about them altogether. If we remember, even for a second, the events of the previous two episodes, then the Doctor’s actions in this episode seem pointlessly, disgusting, heartlessly cruel. Is it supposed to be some kind of demented therapy to take two young parents who have just a child ripped away from them, and who now have to live with the knowledge that they will never be able to nurture and protect that child, and stage a parable for them about how parental love is the most powerful and precious force in the universe? What a cunt!

That aside, four stars.